There are aspects of our lives that we like to think are totally under our control — political affiliation is certainly one of them. But a growing field of researchers asserts that there may be some biology underpinning our liberal or conservative bent.
One of the latest studies comes from two political scientists and a psychologist at the University of Nebraska. They found that liberals and conservatives had different reactions to gaze cues, like whether they tended to look to the left if a face on their computer screen was looking in that direction. Liberals were inclined to follow the gazes, while conservatives weren’t, and the researchers argued that this was because those on the right place a higher value on autonomy (or because liberals are more empathetic, or because conservatives are less trusting of others). (More on Time.com: The Strange Link Between Winning Elections and Online Porn)
Political scientist John Hibbing, one of the authors of the study and something of a father in this field, concedes that these explanations are best guesses — and he understands that making these guesses is a sensitive matter. “When we do talk about differences between liberals and conservatives, people are extremely quick to think that we’re trying to say one group is somehow deficient,” he says. “Sometimes we’re accused of making it simple.”
Among the detractors making such accusations is Evan Charney, a political science professor at Duke University who devotes his time to debunking research into the science of party affiliation. “I think we have reached the level of absurdity,” says Charney. “People insert meaning into irrelevant things in the world and say this is an indication of someone’s political ideology.”
Charney’s true bugbear is genetic studies — such as one that came out in October linking a specific gene to liberalism. “These gene associations are today’s equivalent of phrenology,” Charney says. “The truth of the matter is so much more complicated. The problem is that people don’t like complicated stories.”
Studies like Hibbing’s gaze-cue experiment, however, could be considered less reductive (and contentious) than the search for a “liberal gene.” Rather than suggesting that a liberal in the world is a liberal in the womb, they attempt to identify underlying traits that might make a person more attracted to certain issue positions. “There might be something about how [people] process information differently that leads them to seek out liberal or conservative policies,” says psychologist Mike Dodd, who worked with Hibbing on the gaze-cue study. (More on Time.com: The Real Question About Eliot Spitzer Has Yet to Be Answered)
For instance, other work Hibbing has done suggests that people who react strongly to disgusting images (think: guy eating worms), tend to take conservative positions on issues like gay marriage and premarital sex. The biological reaction doesn’t make those people Republicans, Hibbing says, but it may be connected to why some Republican positions appeal to them.
But even this sort of theory doesn’t sit well with some onlookers. Hibbing describes himself as “kicked around” because of his research: “People are usually pretty proud of their political beliefs,” he says. “They think they’re rational responses to the world around them, so to come along and say maybe there are these predispositions that you’re not even aware of … that doesn’t really go down all that well.”
He also breaks down objections into liberal and conservative camps. “On the left, people don’t like to think that maybe people aren’t fully malleable,” he says. “On the right, it’s that these are a bunch of liberal academics trying to show that conservatives are genetically or physiologically flawed.”
The conservative reluctance seems more understandable when looking at studies that associate personality and politics, which have been ongoing for decades. A good example comes from a 1950 study, in which right-wing types were identified as “rigid, conventional, intolerant, xenophobic and obedient.” (Left-wingers are typically assigned much more palatable adjectives like flexible and curious.)
In recent years, the dividing point has become open-mindedness, which suggests conservatives are, unflatteringly, defined by being closed-minded. “Every bad trait you can imagine has been laid at the doors of conservatives,” says Hibbing. “So I don’t blame them for being on guard.” (Of course, each attribute is what researchers make of it. An intolerant, conventional person might also be called a careful, orderly one.) (More on Time.com: Never Mind the Tea Party. Can a ‘Liberal Gene’ Make You a Party Animal?)
In a 2008 study led by Columbia University’s Dana Carney, researchers analyzed living and working spaces to see if they revealed some connection to conservative or liberal persuasions. They found that right-wing bedrooms were cleaner and fresher, as well as more likely to contain “organizational items” like postage stamps and calendars. Liberals had more comfortable and stylish rooms, containing books on feminism and international maps. At this point, the conversation has turned too silly for the likes of Charney. “Is anyone supposed to be surprised that a liberal has a book on feminism and a conservative doesn’t?” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘Oh, my God, they found that liberals had books on liberalism.’”
Both sides are anxious to see how the field of the biology of politics will be viewed in 50 years — if it has indeed been lumped in with pseudosciences like phrenology or if it has become a new platform for widespread, interdisciplinary study. Meanwhile, the fascination — and vitriol — will likely remain. “The notion of where political ideology comes from has never been contested,” says Bruce Bimber, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, who tackles this topic in graduate seminars. “It’s always been a settled assumption that it is the product of socialization and life experience, and this research has come along saying, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. We might have had this partly wrong all along.’”